Sarah Brown, Beauty Director, Vogue

sbrown

"I’m from New York; I moved here when I was nine. My mother had an art gallery in SoHo, the Diane Brown Gallery, and my brother and I would go every day after school and just hang around. It was on Greene Street—she had many galleries, but her first was on Greene Street. It was a cool time in SoHo, 1983, 1984. The art world was really vibrant; it was so interesting to grow up surrounded by the energy, the diversity, and that culture in New York.  Christopher Ciccone, Madonna’s brother, was one of my mother’s assistants—there was an amazing cast of characters around us at all times. I went to high school at Dalton on the Upper East Side—I was this downtown kid who had this uptown facet to my life. I have a pair of Nike tennis shoes that say ‘Downtown Brown’ on the back—that’s what they called me in high school. A lot of people in our industry think I’m an uptown girl, which is funny; it must be because I often look like a prim, proper thing at work. For college, I went to Vassar, where I studied Art History and French.

I had a lot of focus really early on. I was obsessed with magazines. My mother got Vogue, Elle, Mirabella. I got Seventeen and Teen Beat. I would read the magazines and cut them up and make collages—create my own layouts, basically. I did this from ten-years-old on.  If you look at pictures of me in my college dorm room, the walls were plastered with collages from Vogue.

When I was in high school and starting to think about applying to college, my mom said, ‘You need an internship to put on your applications.’ So I said, ‘I want to work at a magazine.’ The next day, she told me, ‘Alright, you’re working at ArtForum.’ So, I would go to ArtForum after school, two days a week. This was before magazine layouts were made on computers; it was a lot of literal cutting and pasting. It was a small operation and I got to do a little bit of everything. I would go around to the different galleries and pick up ads for their upcoming exhibitions—physically picking up the artwork for their advertisements. I couldn’t believe I was seeing this magazine being made. That was thrilling for me.

In college, my deal with my parents was that they paid my tuition and I earned my spending money, which meant getting summer jobs. I worked at the Gap and Banana Republic part of each week, which is why I’m very good at folding. I would do those jobs for money, but I also wanted to be doing something during those summers that I was really passionate about that was going to lead to something else. Mary, the wife of my mother’s hairdresser, Olivier, worked at Elle. This was when internships weren’t that common. You’re working for free—who would want to work for free? Now it’s sort of an expected part of your resume, and we definitely look for people who’ve had internships because the experience is invaluable, but back then, it wasn’t so par for the course. Mary asked my mother where I wanted to work at the magazine, and she said, ‘Editorial.’ I didn’t know what that meant. My mother just said, ‘It’s better.’ There was an opening in the Beauty department and they put me there. I didn’t know magazines had beauty departments, or what that even meant. This was when Jean Godfrey-June was senior editor. China Chow was also a beauty intern at Elle at that time. It was an amazing summer. I worked sort of endlessly. I couldn’t believe I'd been let into the door of Elle magazine. It blew my mind. The next summer, I wanted to do another internship. At that time, Condé Nast had a typing test and I was freaked about that so I did not apply for anything there because I was just like, ‘I can’t do the typing test!’ My other top picks were W and Harper’s Bazaar. And this was the Harper’s Bazaar of Liz Tilberis. I loved Fabien Baron’s minimalist design; it didn’t look like anything else. So, I applied to W and Harper’s Bazaar to work in the beauty department, because I’d had experience there already.  The Bazaar beauty assistant was a Vassar alumna, so she hired me right away. A lot of the people who are now at Vogue were there at the time—Tonne Goodman, Elissa Santisi. Liz Tilberis was incredibly inspirational. She was so busy, and very sick at the time, though most people didn’t know the extent of it, especially someone like me, an intern. But she was so kind. I would be stapling stuff together and she would walk by and say, ‘Hello! Great job! Thank you for coming in today!’ She made me feel valuable. I felt like, this woman is so successful and so busy and she can be nice to an intern. She can learn my name. You know? She would invite everyone into her office for champagne parties whenever it was someone’s birthday.

When I graduated from college, I hadn’t bothered to think about a job. I just felt like it would work out. So when graduation came, I had nothing lined up. I applied very quickly to the Radcliffe Publishing Course, which is at the Columbia Journalism School now but at the time was a very old-school thing at Radcliffe in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It seemed like a good idea, because if my parents start pressuring me about a job, at least I could say, ‘Well, I’m spending the summer at Harvard, so, you know, back off.’ Part of the course was book publishing—the main emphasis—and part of the course was magazine publishing. Steve Florio was a keynote speaker, Christopher Hitchens and Andrew Wiley gave guest lectures, all these incredible people. During the last couple weeks of Radcliffe, I wrote a letter to the editors I’d worked with at Elle saying, ‘Hey, I graduated college, I’m coming back to New York in a couple weeks, I’d love to have a coffee.’ Jean Godfrey-June, by this time the beauty director, wrote me back at my Radcliffe address—I still have this letter—saying, ‘We’d love to see you.’ And I just thought, Oh my god! So, I got back from Radcliffe and the next day I went in to Elle. Jean hired me as her assistant. We were short-staffed at the time, so I started going to events, just so someone from Elle would be there. I’d come back so excited and I would say, ‘We should write about this! Here’s information about that!’ And Jean would say, ‘Why don’t you give it a try.’ I had never considered myself a writer; it never crossed my mind. I was always a good writer—in school, I could sort of skim the introduction of a book, read the back, take the exam and do well. Within about eight months, Jean promoted me to associate editor. I think I was 23 when she made me senior editor. And, you know, people ask me about how I got to where I am, and I always tell them: Part of it is hard work, but a lot of it is luck and a lot of it is working with someone who is supportive of you. Jean was an unusual boss. She taught me to find my voice as a writer. When I got my job as beauty director at Vogue, I sent her a gift saying, ‘This is because of you.’ We had a teary moment together. But, it’s true.

After three and a half years at Elle, at which point Jean and so many of the colleagues I had grown up with at the magazine had left, I felt it was a good time for my next step. I really wanted to work at Vogue, but there were no jobs open. At the time—I was 24, maybe 25—I felt that if I can’t work at Vogue, I don’t want to work anywhere. So I decided to go freelance. All the writers I really respected had been freelance at some point. I looked at it as a rite of passage. I thought, instead of writing for one boss, I’ll write for ten bosses. I’ll get to write in all these different voices, for all these different magazines, I’ll do lifestyle, fashion, beauty, all kinds of stuff. Because I didn’t want to just be a beauty person—I wanted to do more. It was basically like walking off a ledge. I worked out of my apartment, night and day, around the clock. I was very nervous about having enough money to pay rent. But I doubled my salary almost instantly. I had a lot of great opportunities. I did everything: I wrote a few press releases; I wrote for New York magazine’s Gotham Style section; I wrote one little thing in the Styles section of the Times, which was just the best moment of my life. It was probably twenty words long, and about a new trend in tapioca pudding, but I was just like, ‘I’m in the New York Times!’ I wrote for InStyle, Mademoiselle, Self, Glamour, Nylon—honestly, everybody.  And it was great. Then Amy Astley, who was beauty director at Vogue, started working on Teen Vogue as a test issue, and I did a couple things for those first few issues for her, and then I wrote a page for Vogue’s Index.

Finally, after seven months freelancing, a job opened up at Vogue for a senior beauty editor, and I got an interview. I couldn’t believe it. Still, I was really happy being freelance—I liked my lifestyle; I was making a good salary. I went in for my interview with Anna thinking, ‘I’m going to be myself, and she’s either going to like me, or she won’t.’ I looked at the interview as a cool opportunity. I don’t look like every Vogue girl; I was kind of different. But she hired me and I became a beauty editor under Amy Astley. And a year-and-a-half later, Amy launched Teen Vogue and I was promoted to beauty director at Vogue, due in large part to Amy’s support. That was 11 years ago.

Beauty was not something that I’d ever thought about. I didn’t play with makeup as a kid.  As a teenager, my arsenal consisted of the Prescriptives Custom Blend Foundation and loose powder my mom took me to get at the counter at Bergdorf’s, and a cast-off fuchsia YSL lipstick that had been a free-gift-with-purchase. Now we get interns who are beauty crazy. When I was a kid, I didn’t know what it was. But, there you go! For me, above all it’s about magazines. I love magazines. And I wanted to work at a fashion magazine because I love fashion. At Vogue, our beauty pages are inspired by the runways, by technology, culture, and by extraordinary people leading fashionable lives; you know, it’s a package. We have the power to make people feel better about themselves; that’s the most beautiful thing about beauty. When you’re talking about makeup or fitness or dermatology or a new haircut— these are things that can change the way a woman feels about herself, and quickly. It’s also exciting to be able to discover a new line, a new expert or personality, and to help launch them. Because Vogue is such a powerful brand, when we put our name behind something, it’s a stamp of approval. We take that very seriously. The people we put in the magazine, I’d have to be able to send my mother to them—I’d have to be able to send Anna Wintour to them."

Sarah’s Essentials

Oscar Blandi Salon: “I’ve been going to him for fifteen years. Oscar’s like family to me—he cuts my mother’s hair, he cuts my boyfriend’s hair. We created my cut together over many years. It’s my signature, and I owe it all to him. I’ve been going to the same colorist, Kyle White at Oscar, for probably twelve years. He’s just the best blonde-er in New York. Meredith [Melling Burke] goes there. Lauren Santo Domingo did for years, too.”

Foundation: “Everybody looks better with foundation on. Trish McEvoy once said to me, ‘People are always so proud to tell me they don’t wear foundation and I always think, ‘If you did, you would look better!’’ I agree. It doesn’t have to be a mask. For me, it’s a security blanket, and if I’m doing it right, you’d never know I’m wearing it. I love Tom Ford Traceless Foundation. I’m wearing it right now. It makes you look kind of dewy. I also love By Terry Light-Expert—it’s great for when I come home from work and my makeup’s settled into my pores; I’ll put it on over my makeup and it sort of just puts everything into soft focus. Terry [de Gunzburg] created Touche Éclat when she was a creative director of makeup at YSL.”

Stila’s Kitten Eye Shadow: “Everybody in beauty knows that I love Kitten by Stila. It’s like a rose gold. I’ll line my eyes with pencil then blend it all together with Kitten. It’s got the best pay-off of any shadow I've used, and the shade—which changes subtly depending on what color liner you’ve blended it with—really is universally flattering. Sofia Coppola told me about it—I was interviewing her for Elle a thousand years ago. I actually got everything that she used because she has such great taste.”

Dark lips: “I’m really into a purple-y, mauve-y lip. I’m using Nars Downtown Lip Gloss. I always do a lip and an eye—I don’t care. Because I’m so pale, it works on my face.”

Colored eyeliner: “I don’t think it looks cheesy. I’m wearing a green eyeliner right now: Bourjois Paris Contour Clubbing Waterproof eye pencil in Green Insomniac. I also like Urban Decay 24/7 Glide-On Shadow Pencils and the Eyeko Fat Eye Stick in Charcoal. I pick what color I’m going to put on my eye based on my mood and what I’m wearing.”

DIY nails: “I don’t get my nails done very often; I usually do my own. I’m really quick and I’m really picky. I like Nails Inc. Baker Street polish. It’s a British company that also makes the best base-coat and top-coat. I’ve had it on for almost a week and it’s not chipped. I do my toes, too. When I do go out for a pedicure with a friend, I go to Jin Soon on 4th Street.

Lip serum: “Rodan + Fields Anti-Age Lip Renewing Serum is really good. Rodan and Fields are these two cool female dermatologists who live in San Francisco. They’re actually the people behind Proactiv. If you put the serum on at night, when you wake up in the morning, you will not have chapped lips.”

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  • Stef

    This is the most inspiring interview! She is so much more down to earth than some others interviewed on here!

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